Befriending a vengeful God

The transcript of the interview about Atonement by the Australian broadcaster RN for its radio programme, Encounter.

James Alison (interview): My real concern as a man of faith and as a theologian, it’s really about the linking of vengeance to God, the linking of violence to God, that God is a vengeful person whose vengeance needs satisfying in some way. And of course, I think that that does have catastrophic results, enabling a whole lot of our behaviour to be somehow canonised by God rather than us undergoing the process of having our images of God pruned from our own violence so as to be able to appreciate someone who is entirely without violence, entirely unambiguous and entirely loving of us.

My concern is not to go back into letting God be a function of our violent social life, rather trying to understand the way in which God, who is in no way violent at all, is trying to enable us to undo from within our own violence and come and live in a way that is peaceful.

David Busch: That’s English Catholic theologian, James Alison, and his thoughts about violence and God, as they relate to the death of Jesus, is the focus of today’s Encounter, here on ABC Radio National. Welcome: I’m David Busch.

Mel Gibson’s film The Passion confronted moviegoers last Easter with all the blood and barbarism of a Roman flogging and crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Just how that violent death of Jesus achieved salvation for humanity, as Christian theologies of the atonement maintain it did, involves more interpretive subtlety, and the ongoing bloodshed in the world since that first Good Friday prompts the question, what difference has it made anyway to redressing humanity’s capacity for violence?

As one of the rising stars of Catholic theology, James Alison has revisited the contentious theology of the atonement in the light of the writings of contemporary French philosopher, Rene Girard, a leading thinker on religion and violence. Girard’s analysis of how scapegoats, victims and sacrifices lie at the heart of all religions and human cultures, has led Alison to explore afresh the violent sacrifice of an innocent victim which is the central story of Christianity.

A priest and writer, James Alison has lived in the UK, the United States and for many years, in South America. Recently, he visited Australia where he gave three lectures in Newcastle, including the annual Morpeth Lecture, on the topic The God Who Kills: Thinking Through Salvation. This program features excerpts from those lectures and an interview. James Alison opened his lectures with a direct attack on a theology of atonement which goes back 900 years to St Anselm, what’s called the penal substitutionary theory which remains influential today.

James Alison (lecture): If you were to ask someone, Well, okay, you say we’re saved; how are we saved? How did Jesus save us? The answer you might get might sound something like this:

God created the universe, including humanity, and it was good. Then somehow or other mankind fell. This fall was a sin against God’s infinite goodness and mercy and justice, affecting the order of creation. So there was a problem. Humans could not, off their own bat, restore the order which they had disordered, let alone make up for having dishonoured God’s infinite goodness. No finite making up could make up for an offence with infinite ramifications. And God would have been perfectly within his rights to have destroyed the whole of humanity. But God was merciful as well as just, and so he pondered what to do to sort out the mess. Could he simply have let the matter by in his infinite mercy? Well, maybe he would have liked to, but he was beholden to his infinite justice and honour as well. Only an infinite payment would do, something which humans couldn’t come up with, but God could. And yet the payment had to be from the human side, or else it wouldn’t be a real payment for the outrage in question.

So God came up with the idea of sending his son into the world as a human, so that his son could pay the price as a human, which, since he was also God, would be infinite, and would thus effect the necessary satisfaction. Thus the whole sorry saga could be brought to a convenient close. Those humans who agreed to cover over their sins by holding on to or being covered by the precious blood of the Saviour, whom the father had sacrificed to himself, would be saved from their sins. And given the holy spirit by which they would be able to behave according to the original order of creation. In this way, when they died, they at least would be able to inherit heaven, which had been the original plan all along, before the fall had mucked everything up.

My problem with this is not that it’s substitution, it’s not that it’s atonement, but that it’s a theory. The bizarre thing is that a theory fits in with a particular world view, which wants clear and distinct ideas, something you can grasp which is out there. And that it’s very odd indeed to have a theory about something which is a liturgical act. Because of course, atonement, when it was born, was a liturgical act, something being done for people, at people, to people. In other words, God moving out from the holy place so as to make something available to people. Not pagan priests sacrificing people so as to stave off the divine wrath.

So in the first place, we’re looking at a liturgy, something that people expected to have done towards them. So when we talk about atonement, we’re talking about something towards us, and that’s very different from a theory. A theory you can grasp on to, it’s something that happened a long time ago, and well, now we just know about it. But that’s not something that’s coming towards you.

If something comes towards you, you are altered by it. You have to learn how to tell a new story about yourself, as you find yourself affected by it. That’s rather a different sort of understanding of what atonement is about.

David Busch: James Alison contrasts these two approaches in terms of comparing a 2-dimensional image with a 3D one. Atonement as theory is like a 2-dimensional image, framed in a linear concept of time and reality and approached intellectually. Atonement as liturgy is like a 3D image, revealing the depths of the eternal divine reality which lie just behind the dimensions of our temporal lives. As liturgy it is approached experientially, bringing people into a dynamic contemporary encounter with God.

James Alison (lecture): Within the 2D image which I gave you, the understanding of atonement, there are a number of problems precisely which are to do with the failure to be a liturgy and the insistence on being a 2-dimensional explanation that can be just held onto out there.

The first one is the picture of God that’s involved. In the 2D account, you have God angry with people, and basically would carry on being angry with people, if he hadn’t managed to get someone to take the blame. This is what I call God as the eye of the hurricane – er, Jesus, rather, as the eye of the hurricane. So God is a hurricane, and of course basically is going to blast everything in its path, but in God’s kindness, God’s revealed that there’s an eye to the hurricane which is Jesus, and if you get in there, then you’ll be safe, because hurricanes have eyes, and they’re calm, provided you stay in your boat and swim along with the eye of the hurricane you’ll be OK. But if you step outside it, you get God BC as opposed to God AD. Right? The full price God without the Easter sale reduction. That’s the image.

Now the pity with that is that it doesn’t actually do any justice at all to what it’s quite clear from the New Testament that people like St Paul thought the atonement was about. What they thought the atonement was about was that it actually finally and definitively showed that God wasn’t like that at all. That God’s desperate bid in the New Testament was to get across to us that he is good, that he likes us, that he is for us, and the only way he could get across to us, was to actually allow us to kill him, the wrathful divinity that needed satisfying in this equation was us. That’s our way of doing things. It’s completely the reverse of what we normally imagine, it’s completely the reverse of the pagan priests offering something to placate wrath.

The only wrathful divinity here who needed its wrath assuaging was us. We are inclined to be wrathful, we are inclined to think we need victims in order to build up our goodness and our holiness, so that we can say, “I am not like him!” God standing in to requite whose anger? Our anger. We are the people who needed to be reconciled. The expiation was offered to us. This was God trying to get across to us that he is just and can be trusted, and that we don’t need to be frightened of him.

So that’s a picture of God which is already entirely different. At the resurrection, what the apostolic group began to understand was that there is no violence in God, no wrath, no desire for retribution, no need for vengeance or satisfaction, that’s purely our problem. And what he was trying to get across to us is I’m taking you at your very worst, and showing you that even so, you don’t need to be frightened of occupying even that place of shame and disgrace, which is where you put a victim, because things can still go on.

The problem with the picture in the 2D atonement theory, is that it has God being wrathful at the beginning, and God being wrathful at the end, but creating an exception. Whereas the whole testimony of the New Testament is that what this atonement was about was showing that God is nothing like that at all. That that’s our wrath, vengeance, satisfaction, that’s our world, that God is prepared to occupy that place so as to, if you like, unteat us. Is that the word, do we say that in English? When a child gets removed from the mother’s breast: wean, that’s the polite word, I was thinking in Spanish and Spanish is destetar ‘to remove from the tits’. Wean, that’s good polite word. To wean us from our addiction to these sorts of things, which it’s very, very difficult for us to be weaned.

David Busch: Why is it that that particular interpretation has become so dominant? Is it feeding some innate element of our theology or our anthropology, a desire to see God in a particular way, and that was a useful way to keep that story going, that made it more popular than other understandings of the atonement?

James Alison (interview): It’s a very, very good question, and I don’t know the answer. Because it’s got an ocean of sacrifice, let’s run with it, sacrifice is something that’s tremendously popular in human societies. We think of it as an especially religious thing, but let’s remember in places that have had public executions these were tremendously popular occasions, people actually like the spectacle of death, and want to see it, and now we have it provided cinematographically for us.

David Busch: Courtesy of Mel Gibson maybe.

James Alison: Even without Mel Gibson I’m thinking much more of your average detective murder film. These are things that fascinate, where they draw us in, and I’m absolutely part of that. So there is a fascination with that, and something that’s able to appeal to that rather than ask us to sit down and undo it, it has a certain advantage. And when it then gives one a story that enables one, it says, OK, and this is what your new identity will be, provided that you follow these rules. In other words, it gives you a set of moral laws that you then follow. And says that now the sacrifice has been done, so now all that there is left to do is to follow these rules, and these are the rules, and you must not change them, because if you change them that will suggest that the sacrifice wasn’t worth doing.

Actually, that’s a very easy way for people to fit into the world of law and order, and I think that particularly at a time of fear, people want something that will make them certain that they are on the side of the good in what is a very confused and difficult world. And they know they’re on the side of the good because they’re either upholding or at least trying to uphold the moral law. So I think that in that sense it’s an attractive package. It’s an attractive package for exactly the same way that some other religions which are explicitly law and order religions are attractive. They take out the existential angst and pain of being discovered by someone else, which is what Christianity is all about.

James Alison (lecture): The second problem with the atonement story that we’re used to, the 2D version, is that it’s obsessed with sin. It seems to think that we know what sin is about from the beginning, because for the 2D atonement theory story to work, sin has to be a kind of a fixed package that needs paying for. There is this problem: sin. What is the solution going to be? The solution has got to be as big as the problem.

But that means that in fact it’s sin that gets to dominate the story, because salvation becomes a response to sun, which makes God reactive. Now if God is reactive, then the real God in the story is that which is being reacted to, which means that sin is what is really running that particular storyline.

Now the curious thing is that there is no pre-existing understanding of sin. If you read the Hebrew scriptures, you will find n different understandings of sin, none of which anyone can make any sense of. There are moral sorts of sin, there are forms of purity, there are huge shifts in understanding of what sin might be about over time. But there is certainly not a fixed understanding of what sin is about.

And what there certainly is not, is any notion that the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis, which is quite a late story, that that story was ever read by the rabbis as if it were the story of a particular fall. In other words, it was not read by the rabbis as we Christians read it. For a very good reason: the only reason it was read as an account of a fall was in the light of the resurrection. It was because Christ rose from the dead that it became possible to say, Oh, we aren’t what we thought we were. We aren’t creatures who are made for death. The human cultural reality of death is not the same thing as our biological finitude. Our biological finitude is the condition of the possibility of us enjoying God. But that was something we only discovered in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. And looking back we can see, Oh, we’ve been snarled up from the beginning.

And St Paul’s shorthand for “we have been snarled up from the beginning” is with reference to Adam. So Adam comes into the story as St Paul’s way of saying: This cultural reality run by death goes back as long as there have been human beings at all. But, and this is the good news, it is accidental to us, not essential to us. We are not creatures who have to be run by death. And this was something that only became available in the light of the resurrection.

Now you can see that that actually means that there’s a very different picture of sin emerging. Rather than sin being a lump that’s just there, against which God is going to throw the full weight of his sacrificial son – oompf! – like that. Instead of that, sin is that which can be forgiven. Sin is a secondary reality because the primary reality is the forgiveness. And actually if you think about it psychologically, that’s actually what is true in most of our lives. When we are weaned from lists of sins, in the case of most of our life stories, a real understanding of sin comes as a ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’ve been doing, I’ve been involved in this or that or the other, and I thought it was perfectly normal, I didn’t even realise what I was doing. And it’s only now that I begin to see what I was involved in, and must struggle to get out of it, and must struggle insofar as I can to make amends for what I’ve done.’

Many of us would recognise that as a genuine account of what sin is about. Not the list which presupposes us knowing something, but the breaking of heart, the breaking of heart which is what happens when we’re being given a bigger heart, we can see we were too small, we were stuck in something too small, we were doing something that was less than worthy of who we are discovering ourselves being able to become.

In other words, this is the key thing, sin is only understood in the leaving of it. It’s not a reality that is understood first, and then salvation is made to measure for it.

Now the point of that is that it’s designed to make it possible for us to participate in the fullness of creation to live as if death were not, not to be trapped in our snarled under version of creation. It’s not principally about solving sin, it’s about getting us unensnarled from our self-snarl so as to be able to be fully creative. That’s what the purpose of atonement was about.

David Busch: This is Encounter on ABC Radio National. I’m David Busch, and we’re listening to English Catholic theologian James Alison during his recent visit to Australia, where he lectured on his theology of salvation and the death of Jesus.

Rejecting the notion that God required Jesus’ death as a payment for sin, James Alison interprets the crucifixion as God choosing to be humanity’s victim or scapegoat. In this lecture, he explored that idea by recounting a story related to him by a friend who was reflecting on his schooldays in Venezuela.

James Alison (lecture): He says, ‘I can remember now something about our class that we used to have a class fairy. There was the class faggot we used to pick on.’ And this is why I call it Fernando’s story – I’m going to call his name Fernando, I don’t know what in fact the name of this guy was, so I call him Fernando. ‘He was the guy everyone used to pick on and we used to make his life hell, and eventually after a few months, well maybe it was years, this guy obviously managed to persuade his parents to take him away to somewhere else, to another part of Venezuela, another school. So off he went.’

And he said, ‘What I haven’t understood at the time was why it was that we were so completely bereft when he went. We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know how to play any more. We didn’t have our sort of friendly bouncing rugby ball in human form, who we could kick. We didn’t know what to do. And this lasted for about three weeks until we managed to find another class fairy in another class and start up all over again.’

So I said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting. In the story as you tell it, there are kind of two obvious poles and an un-obvious pole’, if that makes sense, if you can have three poles in a story. I don’t know, it sounds like a joke, doesn’t it, three Poles in a story. No, two axes and an un-obvious axis.

The obvious axis in the story is the jocks who were playing this game and who didn’t really know what they were doing; the whole thing was, as I said, rugby by other means as far as they were concerned, and for whom this was just boys being boys, this is sport. And then at the other end of the story there is Fernando, for whom this was either a sink or swim experience, either he would have been completely destroyed and either killed himself or been embittered for life, or else he will have emerged as some people do from this experience, immeasurably stronger. So in a sense, those are the two obvious poles of the story: the blind persecutors and the victim.

But the really interesting pole is the almost-rans, the also-rans, that’s to say the group of people for whom it was quite important that the finger fall on Fernando. The people who were in the group for whom it wasn’t entirely sport by other means, for whom there was some half-repressed sense that they were awfully relieved that the finger had fallen on Fernando because if it hadn’t fallen on him, it might have fallen on them. And you can imagine that in any discussion of such things, there would have been people for whom it wouldn’t have crossed their mind, and there would have been people for whom it was perhaps increasingly important, for whom it was a matter of some relief that it was Fernando who was getting it in the neck rather than them.

Now for those people, this classroom incident, which is repeated in a thousand playgrounds in schools of both sexes and mixed sexes in all the countries of the world as far as I know, this is a very profound place of psychological, moral and spiritual formation, because people don’t just do such things, they become someone as a result of participating in such things, which is true of all of us.

Let’s try and imagine it this way: Let’s imagine this is in Venezuela, six months after Fernando’s parents take him away, let’s imagine that there is a coup in Venezuela, that the US State Department gets its way and manages to produce a change of government, which it just has failed to do, because Mr Chavez managed to get his referendum with a big majority. But let’s imagine there’s a coup. The State Department has produced its coup in Venezuela and guess what? Fernando’s dad is now a state governor. So Fernando comes back to visit his classmates at school.

Well, if you were Fernando’s classmates at school, you can imagine what the return of Fernando would look like. It would start with, ‘Oh shit,’ and it would be followed quickly by, ‘Er, so glad to see you back Fernando, I mean, ghastly what happened wasn’t it, I wasn’t part of that at all really, I was trying behind the scenes to make sure …’ You know, we all know the appropriate brown-nosing techniques for adapting to a change of regime.

But let’s suppose this wasn’t the case. Let’s suppose that the Americans have yet again failed in their coup attempt and in fact that Fernando’s parents were of no significance, and that Fernando has come back to visit his former classmates. Well let’s imagine that he’s come back and that he’s hurt and that he’s angry. That’s okay, you can cope with that, you can imagine that the classmates, just as they can understand Fernando coming back with a bigger stick if his Dad had become important, they understand the logic of that – when we had the big stick, we beat him up, now he’s got a big stick, he’s going to beat us up; that’s part of the same world. You can also imagine if Fernando comes back angry and aggrieved and hurt-looking, you wonder why he’s bothered to come back, but it’s still quite comforting to know that it hurt. He is still part of the same world. The way in which we made ourselves good by having someone bad like him, it’s still stable.

Now supposing Fernando comes back and is entirely happy. He doesn’t appear to be particularly disturbed at all by the whole thing, he just appears to be glad to see people. Well you can imagine that the ‘rugby by other means’ crowd, well they probably wouldn’t have noticed that he’d gone, frankly. So as he goes past, ‘Hi, Fernando, haven’t seen you … oh… oh yeah, okay’, and carried on to the next thing; they wouldn’t have noticed.

But there would be other people for whom the return of Fernando would be seriously destabilising. And what would be destabilising about it was that he wasn’t respecting the place of shame. If it had been important to me that someone else occupied this place, damn important, what’s the bastard doing by looking as though it doesn’t matter to him? That begins to be very destabilising because it’s not someone who fits within any of the relationships of power that we’re used to. It’s someone who appears to be just there, occupying this space. And that causes a very considerable amount of unease, because actually I really quite depended for my ability to relate to other people on it being really bad to be there, and on avoiding being there myself, and so the way I formed a bond with other people, and my way of belonging with them, actually is quite dependent on that. And he seems to be saying it doesn’t matter. That’s quite disturbing.

Now imagine that this bloody Fernando just keeps sticking around and he’s there and he continues to be happy and he’s there for several days and after a bit, something even more awful begins to dawn. It was a set-up. We had thought that we were the ones who were the protagonists in this story, and that Fernando was the butt of our humour and our athletic prowess and all that. But it begins to emerge that actually Fernando had allowed himself to occupy that space deliberately. This has actually been planned. You say, ‘Oh come on, that’s the kind of posthumous revenge of the worst sort, coming back and saying, well actually, all along I planned to be in that place’ … as a kind of counter-factual assertion of power. Typically weedy-weakling thing that one would try to do and that Nietzsche would get all worked up about.

So Fernando says, ‘Well actually, I don’t want to make a great song and dance about this, but yes, when I came to the school it was actually my plan to allow myself to occupy this place. I knew that you depended on there being someone to occupy this place, and you didn’t have any other way of forming your group togetherness, and I knew that the only way of getting across to you that it might be fun to play with you, would be by my occupying that space and then later showing you that it didn’t matter, so that maybe we could invent other ways of playing together. And you say, Come on, you’re saying that now, but before? And Fernando said, Actually as it happens I wrote a letter and left in a lawyer’s office in downtown Maracaibo dated and signed with a notary public, so you can see that I thought this before I engaged in this.

You then start to get a very strange shift in perception, because you begin to become aware that while we thought we had been protagonists in something, more or less queasily sure that we were getting our act together and building something good, actually someone else had really been the protagonist, making use, if you like, of a typical show of ours to get through to us that it needn’t be the only show – actually occupying the place that we were all ashamed to occupy, in such a way as to show that it didn’t matter, to dis it, to disrespect it. And that is the real exercise of power, someone who has the spaciousness to be able to occupy that place, because they’re not in rivalry with us and with our need to create to that sort of space.

Now what does it look like, that someone who is our victim is able to approach us without resentment, without any desire for vengeance? What does it say about them and the sort of love that they have for us? I don’t mean love in a grandiose sense. The whole purpose of this from Fernando’s point of view was to say, ‘Actually, I want to play with you, and I know that you’re not really capable of playing, except this way. And that’s an awfully poor way of playing. And the only way I’m ever going to get you off that, is by my occupying that space and showing you that it doesn’t matter, and that therefore it’s going to become possible in future to imagine other ways of playing that don’t involve creating other little Fernandos.’

What’s the regard of someone who likes us enough to come to us at that level in the place, if you like, where we’re at our worst, convincing ourselves that we’re at our best, of course, where we are at our most nasty, at our most Abu Gharib, but who is coming to us as that? And then begin to imagine what it’s like to be looked at and to remember the regard of the person while we were engaged in the sport – of course it hurt, it was painful, it was nasty. Bullying is. And yet what we’ve discovered afterwards is that the eyes that were looking at us at that time actually liked us, even while we were involved in that. What does it look like to find ourselves liked while engaged in that sort of thing?

I rather think that one of the purposes of the Eucharist is that it’s the constant making present of that regard, begging us to receive it so that we can play with him, and he with us. Rather than it being a question of someone coming towards us and saying, ‘You’ve done wrong, but I’m a decent fellow, so I’ll forgive you.’ We’re talking about actually someone’s project that we didn’t get at all, of coming towards us and liking us so much that they actually undergo the risk of becoming more like us. The risk of love, of actually liking someone, is not ‘I’m approaching you in all my goodness from a clean, safe distance. I love you so much that I’m now going to make you someone different.’ That’s not liking, or being like at all. And what we’re talking about here is someone who liked us so much that he was happy to undergo the risk of becoming us so that we could become him. I think that’s the image that’s difficult for us to bear, the love of someone who is prepared to run the risk that what he would end up looking like at the end would be us. Giving myself away so that I run the risk of becoming you. And you actually becoming me.

Now that suggests a spaciousness, a lack of rivalry, a liking, a desire to be with, that suggests that really the purpose of forgiveness is the possibility of creating a new we, something that didn’t exist yet.

I think one of the things that one undergoes when one is forgiven by someone is loss of control. Being forgiven by someone is when someone approaches one, from whom one could expect a vengeful or a frightening reaction to something one has done, and it’s when they approach without any vengeance, and it’s quite clear that their drawing near is not part of ‘now I’ll teach you a lesson!’ It’s not part of exacting anything from you. The destabilising thing about that is that that disarms you, because they appear to calling forth in you a you that you didn’t know was there. They’re not treating you as what you thought you were, but as something else, which you then find yourself becoming. Being forgiven means being let go. Someone is letting you go. Not in the sense of dismissing you but unbinding you from a whole series of things that you had thought were part of you. A new me is being created that I’m the recipient of, rather than the person who’s running the show.

Now isn’t it difficult to dwell in thinking about that? Isn’t it easier when someone says, ‘Think about forgiving someone.’ We know what that is. That’s a demand that one should strain one’s will to force oneself to be nice to the bastards, and it’s much easier for us to think of times when we have been challenged to be in the active position of someone who is having to struggle in order to forgive someone. And it’s a rather more difficult exercise to sit, if you like, in that position of a person who has been undergoing something at the hands of someone else, of whom I was not in control, and yet who was not trying to dominate me, but who was in fact making me something more than I was. That’s a much more tricky thing to sit in, because of course we don’t control it. That’s the whole point.

That’s what’s meant by grace, of course – sitting in something which is moving towards us which is spacious and which makes us something more than we thought that we were and which we can’t control. It’s not part of a settling of accounts in any way, and that I think is the key to forgiveness, which is that rather than it being something in the first place to do with sin, it’s in the first place to do with how God creates us. In the case of any of us, how we are going to become the new ‘we’ will pass through a process of our finding ourselves undergoing a story like the Fernando story.

David Busch: We’re listening to English Catholic theologian James Alison who spoke about his theology of Christian salvation and the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus during a recent series of lectures in Newcastle, New South Wales. I’m David Busch and this is Encounter on ABC Radio National.

For James Alison, seeing the atonement as opening up an experience of forgiveness as demonstrated in the Fernando story implies salvation is worked out as a process rather than just a one-off event, and this introduces a crucial ethical dimension missed by some Christian theologies.

James Alison (lecture): If you have a theory, when you’re saved you become part of a group of other people who are saved. And this group of other people who are saved know who they are because they’re not like this group of others who are not saved. So part of being saved is coming into a new group, and being part of the new group enables you to define yourself over against what it’s like not to be saved. That’s one of the effects of having a theory of salvation, it becomes like a token, a banner if you like, around which the new group can form.

Now the interesting thing bout the ‘undergoing’ picture of atonement is that it has rather different effects. It works on the presupposition that we are the other who is being approached by the ‘I Am’ – remember, the name of God is ‘I Am’ – and it’s we who are being given the capacity to say an ‘I am’ together as we find ourselves similar to other people who are like us and who have been caught up in the ensnarlment of the ways we belong in the world.

And, you see, that’s rather a different picture of the relationship between the I and the other. With a theory, our ‘I’ very quickly gets aligned with the ‘I Am’, and ‘the other’ becomes a ‘they’. With the ‘undergoing’, it’s ‘I Am’ who is reaching out to us who are ‘the other’, and enabling a ‘we’ to be born in the middle of us who are by nature are a ‘they’. But this is people undergoing the process of the recognition of the similarity with the other, rather than how different and separate I am from the other.

And you see therefore how the living out of the ‘undergoing being forgiven’ produces rather a different way of relating between I, we and other. And this has very real acted-out consequences.

James Alison (interview): There does seem to be a certain archetype of religion of something foundational having happened a long time ago, and now there being merely a question of law and morals which you must stick to, and then you’re on the inside, and that then there is a wicked other outside. That’s quite a powerful archetype which happens in different cultures, usually I should say an archetype that is run by males, is very verbal and needs a book.

The challenge is for us, for Christianity, that we are forbidden to have some group or some people who are completely other, who are another over against whom can define ourselves. Our being forgiven means our undergoing a process of discovering together, with other people who we don’t want to consider are like us, how like them in fact we are, and how we can learn together with them to create something that is good together, not over against anybody.

So any picture of salvation in which there is a necessary ‘bad other’ is running the risk of violence. And we do see that in our world around us, and there are some ways of interpreting Christianity where Christians are people who are saved, which means that they suddenly become part of the good guys, and they know quite clearly who the bad guys are and they can wage a war against the bad guys. You’ll get this also in some forms, particularly Sunni forms, of Islam, where they’re quite clear who the bad guys are and who the bad guys have been from the beginning.

And I think that Christianity is the explosion of that, because in Christianity there is no wicked ‘other’. The wicked ‘other’ is us, and we are being forgiven together. So living in tension with the otherness of others is the form of Christian obedience for us today – if you like, being chewed over by the sheer difficulty of learning to make peace with the other and refusing to allow ourselves to acquire an identity as good over against them. That is a Christian problem. It’s a specifically Christian problem, and one I think, as you say, we are going to have to develop much, much more.

David Busch: Finally in this Encounter, how does Catholic theologian James Alison understand the ethical implications of his understanding of atonement? How does it change human behaviour? Alison argues that as Christ’s death on the cross redeems humanity from its bondage to violence and death, it also enables humanity to work with God in the ongoing activity of creating a new heaven and a new earth. But this requires an abandoning of notions of Creation which are tied to human constructs of social order.

James Alison (lecture): There are accounts of Creation in lots of mythic literature from all over the world, and have various things in common. The accounts of Creation usually take the form of a struggle between the gods, which usually ends up in one of the gods – usually they have an incest fest and various other things like that as well – but in the midst of all this, one of them will get killed, and usually in a violent and nasty way and as the result of one of them getting killed, the world will pour out of their innards, or something like that.

The epic of Gilgamesh is the classic example where Marduk kills Tiamat, who I think is pregnant at the time, and by killing her, sploosh! – and that’s the creation of the world. And as a result of that, after the splurge, Marduk is the person who’s produced order in the Creation. There are other accounts – in the Rig Veda, the Creation is brought into being owing to the dismemberment, the gods sacrifice and dismember a human and distribute him all over the place and from the dismembered human, the whole Creation comes about. There’s a similar one in the Aztec mythology with the goddess Coyolxauhqui. All over the place you can find these wonderful stories.

But what they’re all stories of is a certain sort of salvation, and what salvation looks like is how order was brought about. The notion is that because of a certain murder, treated of course as a sacrifice, order was brought. There was no longer chaos. The understanding from that sort of salvation is that the first thing that there is, is chaos. And in the midst of the chaos the gods conduct this epic soap opera, someone gets killed and woof! order is established. And guess what? Therefore being good means keeping up the order, and keeping the sacrifices going which will usually mean offering sacrifices rather similar to the killing of the offending deity or the offending human. That’s what morality will look like in that sort of sphere.

The interesting thing is that our fathers in the faith, the Jewish people, rejected this. They saw through it. It took them time, but there are various places in scripture where we can actually see a progress in which we see a group of people who, after all, lived in the same Canaanite Middle Eastern region where many of these stories circulated, overcame primitive myths of sacrifice leading to Creation, and started to begin to have a quite different sense of where Creation came from.

When you reject the gods, you also reject the notion that Creation is to do with the establishment of order out of chaos. Because part of God not being one of the gods but being God, means that God is not part of order at all. Order is a human thing, and usually a human thing produced in nasty ways. But that is not what God is about at all. God is the one who is bringing everything into being and making it clear and limpid. No secret deals, no behind-hand conversations, no funny fights between gods, no divine soaps, no incest. The notion of Creation as something completely limpid comes about in the degree to which any notion of God as a sustainer of order out of chaos is pruned away.

If you have a religion in which it’s necessary that God show forth his power by manifesting victory at every stage of the way, you’ll never learn that God has nothing to do with social order, because you’ll always think that social order is sacred. It’s only when you hold fast to faith in God at a time when your bit of social order has been destroyed that you begin to understand that God has nothing to do with social order, but is the condition of the possibility of there being any order at all. It’s in a time of persecution when you can’t believe in the God-given nature of the order of the world, that it begins to become possible to imagine God as having nothing to do with the order of the world, including the order of death.

And the extraordinary thing about this is that it is the anthropological possibility of us taking seriously, looking around us and seeing what can we make of this. We can learn if you like, how not to be run by conspiracy theories regarding nature and destiny and fate, and power and death, which means that we can actually discover what things really are and take responsibility for them.

It’s the notion of the Creator himself showing us that it is possible to live as if death were not, thereby creating the possibility for us to have belief – faith which enables us to walk as if death were not, and therefore to be able to run the risk, saying, ‘Well, since it won’t all end with me, I can take a stand for justice, I can refuse to participate in a cover-up, I can blow a whistle, I can be spacious with people who are sick rather than feeling I must run away from them because there won’t be enough time for me, I can found a community like L’Arche, because I’m part of something that is generous and that is coming towards me, and that I’m being part of and it’s going to go on.’

It makes of morals something exciting, rather than a return back – ‘Oh, because you’ve been saved, you’ve got to go back and behave as it was in the beginning’ – however it was in the beginning. None of us have any notion of how it was in the beginning! That’s not the point of Creation. No. The exciting about morals is, what is it going to be like to create justice in the world, to cause goodness to flourish, to enable there to be springs in desert places. What is this creative activity going to look like?

Linked to the notion of Creation is the notion of Spirit. Remember it’s the Spirit that hovers over the earth at the beginning. And it’s the Spirit that we are given at Pentecost, when the fire comes down into the new temple. And the Spirit of course is the Creator’s Spirit. Being given the Holy Spirit is not in the first instance something about being good. It’s something about finding ourselves on the inside of the creative act. And this is being done as we undergo a process of being forgiven, let go.

The notion is of someone coming towards us – imagine us all ensnarled in a thicket of our own creation in which we’re all tightly bound up together – and imagine someone coming to unensnarl us so that we can gradually turn away, receive from all our Fernandos the ability to say, ‘Oh, so that’s what I’ve been involved in, and instead of that, I don’t have to create social life like, I can actually start to take part in the imagination of new projects of life. And I don’t need to be worried that they’ll come to an end, because if there’s anything good in what I do, it won’t come to an end.’

That is, if you like, the excitement of discovering what goodness might be like, as taking part in Creation. And that’s what Jesus was about.

David Busch: This Encounter was called Befriending a Vengeful God. It features excerpts from lectures given recently in Australia by English Catholic theologian and priest, James Alison. Music was from Peter Gabriel’s ‘Passion’, from the movie ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. Thanks to Dean Graeme Lawrence of Newcastle for permission to record the lectures, which included the annual Morpeth Lecture; and to Jim Ussher for technical production. I’m David Busch.